The MLS playoff format is hardly popular. It's hard to explain, it went back to allowing more than half of the league to get in, and it didn't really reward very many teams for their performance over the course of the season (Seattle Sounders fans, your complaints are justified for once).
Nevertheless, the final four clubs standing are hardly a group of also-rans who stumbled their way to this point. Over the last third of the season and into the playoffs, you can safely argue that the last four clubs are all in the top five in terms of form. That's better than most of the time for MLS, where there's usually some mediocre team that gets enormously lucky in the opening round of the playoffs. The format requires work, but the plus side is that we'll still be getting two potentially excellent games for the right to play for a star above the badge.
This year's Eastern Conference final features two teams that had very bad stretches at some point in 2011. As someone who speaks in public about MLS, I am contractually obligated to mention that Sporting Kansas City started the season with a 1W-1T-6L record and didn't win their second game until mid-June. Since then, they've only lost 3 times, as teams have repeatedly withered under their never-ending high-pressure approach and a balanced, team-wide approach to scoring (5 players scored at least 5 goals, including 9 apiece for each first-choice forward in their 433 formation).
The Houston Dynamo, meanwhile, were struggling enough that fans spent a rather long time discussing whether Dominic Kinnear's era had simply passed for the Orange. However, a confluence of events - the late-season acquisition of Luiz Camargo allowing Geoff Cameron to move to center back and forwards Brian Ching and Calen Carr returning to full fitness chief among them - saw the Dynamo finally hit their stride. Houston has not lost in eight matches, winning six (intriguingly, their last loss was to Sporting at Livestrong Sporting Park on September 10th).
Read on for a look at both teams:
Both of these teams are riding waves of good form at the perfect time. Sporting, in knocking out the defending champion Colorado Rapids, looked like a team of men against a team of boys. When a former midfield hardman from the English lower divisions like Gary Smith is complaining about physical play, it tells you everything you need to know about how KC approaches the game. Peter Vermes requires his team to attack at all times, and often that means playing the ball forward as quickly as possible. It also means a high-pressure approach to defending, which in turn means near-constant physical contact with opponents. While KC's only truly dirty player is Roger Espinoza, they still have a team full of guys that play right on the edge of the line between reckless and merely physical, and that's by design.
Sporting's physical play may have intimidated the Rapids, but it likely won't be so easy against a Dynamo team that were the previous holders of the "most physical team in MLS" title. Dominic Kinnear values possession and patience a little more than Vermes, but not by much. Like KC, Houston's line-up is stocked with big, strong players that thrive when games become more physical. In other words, if KC is spoiling for a fight, Houston will be more than happy to engage them.
Every team in MLS looks different in their own way, but I'd go so far as to say these two are the most similar philosophically. The style of play, the preference for powerful and/or fast players, the level of intensity players are required to have...all that stuff is the same for these two. While the formation differs, both coaches have proven to be very dedicated to a specific alignment (433 for Vermes, 442 for Kinnear). One player - Graham Zusi for the Sporks, Brad Davis for the Dynamo - is relied upon for nearly all of the midfield invention. These two teams are far more alike than they are different.
We'll start with the home side:
There is only one question mark for KC, and that's the status of Omar Bravo. The Mexican international was held out of both legs against the Rapids, though that hardly mattered as the Sporks simply battered a meek, tired Colorado. Bravo says he's 100% ready, but Vermes is less certain. If Bravo is reduced to a bench role, look for him to be replaced by Rookie Of The Year frontrunner CJ Sapong at left forward. Sapong is not as refined or possessed with the kind of soccer IQ that Bravo has, but the Dynamo will hardly be overjoyed to see him.
A quick tactical note about KC: The front three, especially without Bravo, are interchangeable. The wide forwards will switch often, and you can also see Bunbury shift wide with Sapong in the central channel from time to time. If Bravo is in, that option is less likely; instead, look for Bravo to occasionally drop underneath the rest of the front line, making the KC formation almost a 4222 for a few minutes here or there.
On to Houston:
So, a straightforward 442...or maybe not. Kinnear will have to make his money here, as he will have to choose between staying with the formation Houston has used throughout their hot streak, or using the 4411 that the Dynamo adopted to draw 1-1 with Sporting earlier in the season. In that game, Houston had an early 1-0 lead before going down to 9 men and conceded a 90th minute equalizer. If I were a betting man, I'd say Kinnear goes with the 442, especially after getting a lesson in the danger of trying new tactics at this stage of the season in their first leg triumph over the Philadelphia Union. However, if things aren't going well, Houston can make a quick change without using a sub, as Carr has experience playing wide midfield.
Like Sporting, Houston has a questionable starter. Right midfielder Danny Cruz is normally the aggressor against any left back, but Gabriel Farfan left him in a heap more than once in the second leg, and Cruz ended up limping off with a trainer's help after 57 minutes. If Cruz can't play, Kinnear will have to choose between Je-Vaughn Watson or Colin Clark (who is only just back to full training). If Cruz can't play, Houston will be a diminished side. It's not that Watson is a bad player, but he can be erratic (particularly in terms of defending) and, as a more natural fit centrally, he tends to not play as wide as Kinnear would like. On the tighter confines of Livestrong Sporting Park, that might not matter as much, but it could still be an issue. Perhaps the biggest drawback will be the loss of Cruz's aggression in a match that will at times resemble more of a back-alley brawl.
Look for lots of goals. These are the two best teams on set pieces in MLS, and they both have what can be safely termed a robust style of play, which should mean plenty of free kicks. Everyone knows about the delivery of Davis, but Zusi isn't all that far behind him. Just as importantly, both teams have line-ups full of big, strong, aggressive players that have the right attitude to win headers on attacking free kicks. Here's the telling stat: These two teams combined for 7 goals in the conference semifinals, and 4 came from set pieces (and that doesn't count Teal Bunbury's PK).
This will not quite be one for the MLS time capsule in terms of brilliant skill, but I am expecting a hugely entertaining, incident-filled game. Both teams have the mindset that it's better to win 4-3 than 1-0, and neither team is good enough in the back or in defensive midfield to stop the other from surging forward. This game is going to be a track meet.
I picked Sporting to go to MLS Cup before the playoffs began, and that doesn't change here. Their 433 formation means a 3v2 advantage in central midfield, where Camargo and Adam Moffat had far too much time against the Philadelphia Union.KC will put tons of pressure on them, and I think they will be found a bit wanting as a result.If Kinnear does change to some variation of a 451, he'll be forcing his team into an unfamiliar formation in a one-off game, which is never a coach's first choice.
Going the other way, I think Houston is going to have a real problem with containing Zusi in the run of play. It won't be a huge edge - central midfield tends not to be an enormous factor when both teams zoom up and down the field and attack the wings like these two do - but in the playoffs a narrow edge is all you need. I'll take Sporting to win 3-2 in a thriller, provided they don't pick up a red card (entirely possible with guys like Espinoza, Aurelien Collin, and Julio Cesar involved).
What do you think is going to happen? Feel free to discuss the game in the comments here. Check back tomorrow morning for a look at the Western Conference final.